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Research reports on early education from NIEER and outside organizations

Research Reports

Preschoolers’ Executive Function: Importance, Contributors, Research Needs and Assessment Options


June 16, 2017
Debra J. Ackerman and Allison Friedman-Krauss, Ph.D.

The early education field is increasingly recognizing the key role played by young children’s executive function (EF) skills, generally defined as the cognitive abilities that consciously support goal-directed behaviors (Diamond, 2006; Garon, Bryson, & Smith, 2008). This recognition is important given the continued policy emphasis on expanding at-risk children’s access to publicly funded prekindergarten (Barnett et al., 2016) and the central role that EF skills play in children’s learning and overall school readiness (Blair, 2002; Blair & Razza, 2007; Obradovic, Portilla, & Boyce, 2012; Zelazo, Blair, & Willoughby, 2016). The extent to which EF may serve as a critical contributor to children’s early education outcomes may be particularly salient in light of recent data on the out-of-school suspension rates of preschool children, the percentage of kindergarten students who are retained in grade (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014), and research on the relationship between exposure to poverty and financial hardship and EF skills at age 4 years (Raver, Blair, Willoughby, & Family Life Project Key Investigators, 2013).

Perhaps not surprisingly, a wealth of preschool EF-related research has been conducted over the past 15 years, ranging from how EF is related to other cognitive skills to how children’s experiences and environments contribute to EF development. In addition, attention has been paid to how EF might be validly and reliably assessed in 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. Given the importance of EF to young children’s cognitive and social–emotional development, school-related behavior, and school success, we provide a broad overview of this research base, including the traits and skills that fall under the broad umbrella of EF and the role EF plays in preschoolers’ developmental and academic outcomes. Also addressed are the child, environmental, activity-related, and curricular factors potentially impacting the development of EF and some related topics for which additional research is needed. Finally, to support future research, we provide practical and psychometric information regarding six examples of measures that focus on assessing EF in children ages 3–5 years